For many years of my adult life, I taught freshman composition to groups of brand-new college students terrified of writing and words. One of the first lessons I taught them was a low-stakes version of sentence diagramming wherein they reduced their ideas to one person, place, or thing doing one specific action. For example, “Ted Yoho called.” From there we would work to add elements like direct objects and indirect objects in order to form sentences that would clearly and efficiently relay information to audiences. Building on my first example, “Ted Yoho called” would become “Ted Yoho called Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a fucking bitch.”
One enemy of sentence clarity is passive voice, which makes the subject of a sentence a hapless victim of the verb. New writers often use passive voice to sound more academic, and chickenshit politicians often use it to take no responsibility for their own actions. Here is an example of passive voice: “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was called a fucking bitch at work by an asshole who refuses to accept responsibility for his own words.”
Today, Ted Yoho, the congressman who called Alexandria Ocasio Cortez a fucking bitch, gave an “apology” on the House floor that also served as a master class in using language to distance oneself from one’s own mistakes:
“The offensive name calling words attributed to me by the press were never spoken to my colleagues,” Yoho said, “and if they were construed that way, I apologize for their misunderstanding.”
Let’s look at that as if it were a sentence in Yoho’s first draft of a five-paragraph essay in remedial freshman comp.
First, where is the subject? As it stands, the subject in the first independent clause of this compound sentence is “Words.” Now let’s find the verb, or the action word. The verb is “attributed.” But who is attributing these words? The press. So where is Yoho in his own apology? Making a cameo cowering behind a preposition.
My suggestion, were this man to make an appointment to visit me on my office hours in order to detangle his shitty essay, would be to get his nouns as close to his verbs as possible in order to sort out the message he is trying to relay. Here’s a try:
“The press [subject] attributed [verb] offensive name calling [adjectives] words [direct object] never spoken to my colleagues [object complement] to me [Yoho, at long last! Welcome to your own apology!].”
Now in the second clause, we do find our first active subject and verb, “I apologize,” but now we must find what the subject is apologizing for, which seems to be “their misunderstanding.” But who is “they?” the audience might rightly wonder. For more information, let us go to the conditional that begins this sentence: “If they were construed in that way.” So “they” are the “offensive name calling words,” which, according to this labyrinthine sentence, have misunderstood themselves.
In order to repair the second half of this sentence, I would recommend doing away with the pronouns entirely, and moving the subject and verb to the beginning, so that the clause reads this way:
“I apologize for [the press’s] misunderstanding if [the press] misconstrued [my words] that way.”
So now let throw these fun clauses together with a conjunction and have a look at the whole apology, shall we?
“The press attributed offensive name calling words never spoken to my colleagues to me, and I apologize for the press’s misunderstanding if the press misconstrued my words that way.”
While it is awfully generous of Ted Yoho to apologize on behalf of all the press in the world for interpreting the words “fucking bitch” to mean “fucking bitch,” I’m not quite certain this thesis gets to the heart of the assignment, which was to apologize for harassing a woman at work.